22 European partners - manufacturers, research centres and
palaeontologists - have been conducting a vast multidisciplinary project
which has resulted in the creation of an unusual robot: a dinosaur
capable of walking about and reacting to stimuli from onlookers. This
application for museums, which implements a whole range of sophisticated
technologies, actually represents the first stage of an ambitious
industrial initiative: the creation of autonomous vehicles capable
of moving over particularly dangerous terrains, e.g. among the debris
caused by earthquakes or in minefields.
Mechatronics, telecontrol and informatics
have given birth to Palaiomation, an autonomous robot heralding
more ambitious projects.
A dinosaur wanders around the Museum of Natural
Sciences in Brussels. Children ride on an iguanodon's back at an exhibition
in Birmingham organised by the BBC (Tomorrow's World). A similar robot
is found in the Crown Room of the ancient Royal Armouries Museum,
Leeds. These unusual presentations are the culmination of the first
round of a robotic and cybernetic challenge involving the 22 partners
participating in the Palaiomation project who, over the longer term,
are pursuing a much more wide-ranging objective: the creation of robots
that can be used on dangerous, devastated or contaminated terrains.
Thus, notwithstanding its current prowess, Palaiomation has a hidden
agenda. But the robot-dinosaur itself cannot be dismissed as just
a hair-brained stunt. The ever-increasing number of natural history
museums and theme parks - which are attracting more and more visitors
all over the world - represent a treasure trove of technological novelties.
Since the 1980s, the United States and Japan have dominated the specialised
automaton market and have developed a range of systems based on hydro-pneumatic
technologies, the performance of which - in the absence of any competition
- is still very limited and requires cumbersome infrastructures. Palaiomation,
for its part, embodies a range of futuristic technologies - grounded
in mechatronics, telecontrol and informatics - which have produced
a fascinating interactive automaton which requires minimal infrastructure
and is light and highly mobile. The four laboratories working together
within the EARLR, along with the 18 other universities and museums,
have successfully completed this cooperative research in the framework
of the CRAFT/ Brite-EuRam technological incentive measures.
"This iguanodon is an embodiment of the technological demonstration
phase which was necessary in order to place the project on a profitable
footing, given the particularly extended time scale required for
the development of the project," explains Vassilios Papantoniou,
Director of the R&D Department of the Cybernetic Technology Lab
(Brussels) and Secretary of the EARLR (European Association for
Research in Legged Robots). "This 'spin off' application represents
a launching pad, as it were, on which we are hoping to assemble
the means to embark on our primary objective."
Palaeontology and microelectronics
The automaton's structural components, made of very light aluminium
composite materials, have been designed exclusively using CAD techniques.
Thanks to a laser scanner designed specially for the project, it
has also been possible to mirror faithfully the articulations and
muscular functions of the skeleton of Iguanodon Atherfieldensis
at the Brussels Museum of Natural Sciences. Movement is controlled
by means of microprocessors which send instructions to miniaturised
power-operated systems. The Palaiomation is equipped with visual
and ultrasonic sensors to ensure complete autonomy. The skin which
covers it, and which was produced with the assistance of palaeontologists,
follows the movements of its body in keeping with its musculature.
As for the total costs involved, these have proved highly competitive,
when compared with conventional hydro-pneumatic replicas.
"Initially," according to the Secretary of the EARLR, "the museum
officials were sceptical, but they soon changed their minds when
they saw the result. This product, which could be used for other
types of robot, represents an interactive animation which the public
find highly impressive."
Mine-clearing robots for booby-trapped areas
The ultimate objective of the partners in the association is to
develop fully autonomous devices, equipped with legs rather than
wheels and capable of moving with a very high degree of mobility
over totally unstructured surfaces that are as dangerous as they
are impracticable - such as minefields, areas strewn with debris
following an earthquake, contaminated industrial zones, etc. "In
order to work in these dangerous environments, we will need smart
machines some 3.50 m long, with significant ground clearance, that
are capable of moving at the same pace as a man, employing strides
of about 60 centimetres."
The production of such machines, which are bound to be costly but
which will be capable of providing valuable service in extreme situations,
will require very high levels of technology. The levels of performance
demanded in this case will far exceed those of the iguanodon.